Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: What does the Windsor Framework mean for the UK, EU and Ireland?

The United Kingdom and European Union have hammered out a compromise on the controversial Northern Ireland protocol. This agreement, which settles one of the most unpopular legacies of Britain’s exit from the EU, may also pave the way for better relations between the two sides. Mint breaks down this new deal.

  • Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Three years and a long series of negotiations later, a Brexit divorce deal was concluded between the EU and Boris Johnson’s government in the UK in 2019. One of the elements of the deal was the Northern Ireland protocol.
  • Ireland is divided into two – the largely Protestant Christian Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Catholic Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland saw decades of tensions, popularly known as “The Troubles", between its Protestant majority, which wanted to remain a part of the UK, and its Catholic minority, which wanted a union with the rest of Ireland. This often-violent conflict was settled in 1998 but sectarian tensions remained for decades
  • One of the main foundations of the fragile peace in Ireland was the understanding that the flow of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be kept largely free. Since both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were part of the EU, this free flow was easy.
  • However, Britain’s messy exit from the EU created problems. EU markets have strict regulations on the entry of some products, particularly food and agricultural goods, from non-EU markets. This raised the prospect of checkpoint and barricades at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which could have disturbed political sensitivities, given the long history of tensions
  • To counter this, the Northern Ireland protocol was put into place. Rather than set up checkpoints on land between the two countries, checks were instead set up at ports in Northern Ireland. Goods coming in from the UK would be checked at Northern Ireland’s ports and then sent forward to the EU.
  • This proved an unpopular compromise. Businesses in Northern Ireland found the port checks and the accompanying paperwork to be a significant burden. Others saw the checks as an unofficial border separating Northern Ireland from the broader United Kingdom. The Democratic Unionist Party, a major political force in Ireland, refused to endorse the Northern Ireland Protocol.
  • Intense negotiations then began on another deal, which led to Tuesday’s Windsor Framework. Apart from a number of proposals on tax and legal reforms, the framework attempts to vastly simplify the hurdles to business.
  • It creates two lanes, “green" and “red". Goods in the green lane are destined only for Northern Ireland and will require minimal paperwork, while goods in the red lane are destined for the EU and will face customs procedures.
  • Provisions have also been included for Northern Ireland’s Parliament to resist the application of new EU rules that it disagrees with. While there is disagreement over how effective this proposal will be, its inclusion points to an effort to better accommodate Northern Ireland’s sensitivities. The framework is likely to find support in the UK but it is unclear if Northern Irish parties will support it.
  • Some experts have pointed to the agreement on the Windsor Framework as one of the final acts of the Brexit drama that has gripped the UK and the EU since 2016. The pragmatic deal may help pave the way for better relations after years of tensions.
  • Some commentators also see it as a win for Rishi Sunak's embattled Conservatives, who have secured a workable compromise from the EU while also avoiding the hard-line stances of some factions in Sunak's party.

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